Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Reaching the Baltic lands

Welcome to Warszawa-Zachodnia, or the Wawa West

The western bus and train station of Warszawa, Poland. Photo by Alina Zienowicz via Wikimedia Commons.

When I jumped off the train at Zachodnia Station, it was around noon. “Wawa West,” I told myself.

No sooner had I started dragging my big bag, my hands were again screaming pain. I got through the tunnel system connecting the platforms to the bus station, and there, found myself with no visible sign of the bus service I was looking for.

With 2-1/2 hours to wait, I at first went outside and found Platform 13, the International Platform and the one that the bus would supposedly depart from. As I pondered what I needed to do, a Russian guy came up to me. Having seen my little notebook, the one with the Russian double-eagle on it, he tried to tell me that we were compatriots and that I should help him out with money. I told him in English that I had no money. Finding he was mistaken about my nationality, he laughed and left.

No sooner had he left, an older Polish guy likewise came up to me and asked me for money. I told him in English I had none. When he asked around if anyone could translate his half-demand half-request, I told him in Russian that I had no money. Disgusted that I would speak Russian to him, he stormed off.

I decided this was not a place to hang around at night.

I went back inside a little later and quickly found a money exchange. This one seemed to deal with Lithuanian currency. I was in luck, it seemed. I changed 30 Lit into Zloty, leaving 100 for Vilnius.

Back out in the hall, I figured I better see if there was anyone selling tickets. I went through the entire underground maze of tunnels looking for a marked Ecolines vendor, but none were there. In the end, I had a travel agency and the main Polonus bus desk to choose from. I chose the travel agency.

Apparently that was the right choice. In a transaction that I afterward told the lady was the easiest I had done that day, I paid for my ticket, and with a few last instructions (I would need to look for an Ecolines bus going from Stuttgart to Tallinn), I walked out with a smile on my face. With almost 20 Zloty (10 in a bill and the rest in change), I put my big bag albatross in the left luggage area, and set about looking for Internet access to spread the news. I would be in Vilnius at midnight.

On this, my original luck took hold. I searched through the entire terminal and the underground maze, finding nothing. Then I got to the station and found a guy sitting in a corner, his computer plugged in, typing away. Persistence pays, I told myself.

I set up my computer, and then tried to search out for any wifi servers. None. My sense of humor must have been intact, as I laughed at this, and did some typing while my battery charged up to the 40 percent mark.

Returning to the station, I grabbed a bottle of water and a sandwich, sat back and ate, waiting quietly for the 30 minutes to departure mark. When it came, I freed my albatross from its hold at left luggage and took it out to Platform 13, where the bus from Stuttgart was already waiting. After sorting through the reason why my name wasn’t on their list (I had only just bought the ticket 90 minutes earlier), I checked my bag and myself aboard. The fight was over, it seemed.

The history of the Gutones, or Goths, according to Cassiodorus and Jordanes

Tomb of Theodoric the Great in Rimini, Italy. Photo by Eulenjäger via Wikimedia Commons.

Starting around 300 years before the advent of Christ, the North Sea coast was inundated with several storm floods, some to the size that they displaced whole nations. Indeed, sometime after 120 BC, a major storm hit the coast between the present Netherlands and Denmark displacing three coastal tribes: the Cymbri, the Teutones, and the Ambrones. Except for a small remnant that remained behind, all of these migrated southward in search of new homes shortly after their homelands were submerged.

The Cymbri under King Bolorix and the Teutons under King Teutobod moved southeastward initially, settling briefly in present Pomerania before being forced south by the people who lived there to face the Celtic Boii tribes in battle within ancient Noricum in 113 BC. Their lengthy journey would pit them also against the Romans, which they defeated on several battlefields. Less than a decade later, citizens of the Roman Republic would be terrified at the threat of their approach, at least until the last of the invaders, the Cymbri, were annihilated on the banks of the Po River in 101 BC.

Those who remained behind in Pomerania would be later help form the Oksywie culture that established itself west of the Vistula River around the time of the Cymbrian flood. The Rugii and the Vandals (the latter would move inland and help form the Przeworsk culture) would arrive shortly after Bolorix and Teutobod departed, taking command of the coast in the early part of the first century before Christ. They would still be there when the “three ships” or fleet of King Berig of the Gutones would arrive from southern Sweden.

The Gutones, or Goths, were a Germanic people whose history in Scandza, the so-called “womb of nations” in present southern Sweden, is the subject of speculation. However, it is said that Berig’s arrival marked the end of Rugii and Vandal domination of the coast – both were driven inland by the arrival of the Gutones, archeologically represented by the start of the Wielbark culture.

The conflict between the peoples of the Wielbark and the Oksywie, and later the Przeworsk, cultures ultimately led to domination of the Vistula River by the Gutones and their allies. Pliny would describe their empire as it stood in the latter half of the first century as stretching across 6,000 stadia (about 950 kilometers, a distance that could stretch across present Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia) and as including territory as far east as the Curonian Spit, described by the Roman historian as the Isle of Abalus. However, the extent of the archeological remnants of the Wielbark culture did not stretch eastward nearly that far, hardly reaching the present Lithuanian-Polish frontier.

If the words of Gothic historian Jordanes are to be believed, the first known progenitor of Theodoric the Great, the most powerful of the Goth rulers, was Gapt, who would have been born around the time that Christ died. Gapt’s son, Hulmul, has been proposed by the 19th century writer of Grimm’s fairy tales as the father of King Dan I of Denmark and King Angul of the Angles. However, neither of these assertions have any chance of being proven or disproven.

According to Jordanes, Hulmul begat Augis, who begat Amal, whose name thereafter was lent to the name of the clan that would eventually bear Theodoric. Amal, who would be nicknamed “The Fortunate,” lived during the start of the southward migration of the Goths from the coast of present Poland. Their migration, begun under a King Filimer (the fifth such king since Berig, if Cassiodorus, the secretary of Theodoric, is to be believed), reportedly involving the “best third” of Gothic warriors and their families, took part of the nation southward along pathways as far west as the Vistula in Poland, and as far east as the Dvina or Daugava River in Latvia. Their promised land was called “Oium,” and it supposedly lay at the edge of a large sea, away from the icy waters from which they came.

The Amals, forebears of Theodoric, were supposedly heroic warriors. All the migrating Goths had to be, as they were fighting through territory of the Przeworsk culture to get to their new homeland. This territory included that held by the Burgundians to the west, and the Vandals to the east, which put the latter directly in the path of the Goths. That these survived the invasion and were merely displaced is a tribute to the military prowess of the Vandals, who would become known as among the fiercest and most destructive of the barbarian tribes that brought down the Roman Empire. After their sacking of Rome, the name Vandal would be attached almost universally in European languages to terms meaning “senseless destruction.”

Also among the warriors of the Vandals were the legendary ”völvas,” or “Aliorumnas” (probably Halju-runnos, meaning “hell-runners” or “runners to the realm of the dead”, a reference to their shamanistic experiences during trance). According to Cassiodorus, it was these völvas, sent into exile from their homelands, that procreated with the Huns to create the superior warriors that eventually brought down the Goth Empire on the Black Sea (obviously an attempt to provide some explanation for the dominion of the Huns over the Goths in the fourth century).

Meanwhile, as the Goths fought their way toward the highlands of present southwestern Poland and southern Belarus, the Alans migrated westward from the lower Don River into the territory of the Yancai people, and the two tribes integrate into a powerful nation. Not long after that, the Sarmatian tribes ally with this new Alan kingdom, creating what would become the powerful, and fortunately peaceful eastern neighbor of Gothic “Oium.”

Amal’s son, according to Cassiodorus, was Hisarnis, a name that meant in Celtic as “Man of Steel.” He was supposedly the first Amal King of the Goths. Though they had their share of rulers, not all Amals were kings. He would have been the first ruler to have led the migration into Scythia, the remnants of the great Trypillian culture that once built cities on the steppes of present Ukraine. Either under Hisarnis, or his successor and son “Ostrogotha”(again, according to Cassiodorus’ lost history of the Goths, referred to by Jordanes in his book “Getica”), the Kingdom of the Greuthungi was established in the early third century along the Black Sea coast.

Neither the Greuthungi nor their westward Gothic neighbors in the forests of Dacia, the Thervingi, had much to do with the Amber Road after they successfully migrated south. After the second century rule of Gadareiks, the predecessor to Filimer, the king who led the migration out of Gothiscandza, the trade route belonged instead to the Goths who remained behind, the Widivarians.

Certainly, the Goths retained control of the all-important Vistula River, but in the absence of so large a group of important Gothic warriors, the vacated parts of the Gothic empire reverted to ownership of previous tribes. The Rugii, Gepids, Sciri, and Venedi again returned to their hunting grounds unmolested, while amber continued to travel south to Carnuntum. However, the next great disruption lay just beyond the horizon.

In the late 360s, the Sarmatian-Alan confederation witnessed new arrivals, who began to raid the edges of their lands in what is today eastern Ukraine. Their raids soon turned into a full scale invasion that brought down their confederation in the space of only five years. These invaders were known as the Huns.

In 374, the Greunthungi under King Airmanareiks (Hermanaric) likewise fell, prompting a large scale migration westward as tribes attempted to get out of the way of the Huns. The Thervingi also fled, first south in an attempt to submit to the Roman Empire, then westward after the Romans granted them Foederati status in return for ridding other Germanic barbarians from Gaul. These became known as the Visigoths.

By the middle of the 400s, the Huns had reached the edge of the Roman Empire. The rise of Attila in 434 following the death of Rugila marked the inevitability of war between the barbarian empire and Rome. By 441, the Huns and their clients invaded Illyricum, displacing the Ostrogoths from their Oium and setting up a new kingdom for them in Pannonia. Their rulers were settled on the northern Lacus Pelso, present Nieusiedl See, where they remained when Attila lost his reputation for invincibility at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and suffered the complete collapse of his empire before his surviving sons could restore order. From 453, the Goths again effectively controlled the amber trade arriving in the Empire.

However, between the 380s and the 440s, amber merchants suffered as the route became disrupted with fleeing tribesmen heading west. Through the 440s, no amber made it to market in the Empire as the war with Attila raged. It took the final uprising of Theodomir and the advent of his son, Theodoric the Great, to restore the amber trade into the Roman Empire. As the last life of the Western Roman Empire twinkled out of existence under Sciri-Roman General Odoacer’s military coup against Orestes, Magister Militum, in 476, the trade route to the Baltic coast, at least, was restored.

The final leg to Vilnius: my Ecolines experience

Competing with the Eurolines consortium, Ecolines has been operating since 1997. My endorsement: the experience is worlds better than being on an unventilated Romanian bus. Photo taken from the Ecolines website.

At 2:45 p.m., about five minutes late to their schedule, the Ecolines bus left Wawa West on the way east. Leaving the city, the bus passed a row of chopper motorcycle dealers on the way to the Ring Road north of the city. I started thinking a bit about how much Poland had changed since my first trip into Poland. I then laughed; hopefully this would be the case over the space of 20 years in any nation. The only roads back then were two-lane routes. This sort of dual carriageway that the bus was going down was unheard of. You found that in Germany, not in Poland.

The bus passed over the Wisła River as the bus clock showed 14:56. After passing this great landmark, the Ring Road passed through a set of what could best be described as sound tunnels – large glass panels that passed over the road, forming a tube that kept most of the sound from reaching the nearby residences. I had seen sound walls, but never a tube. This must be some sort of new European thing.

Shortly after the road passed an outlet mall with an Ikea and a Mothercare store, the bus was forced to turn off at the unfinished end of the Ring Road. We turned onto Highway 8, or E67, heading eastward toward Bialystok. I started thinking about how much modern commerce had tied together so much of the world community, so much that you can find the same stores on just about any continent now. I then thought about this old section of highway appeared so much like the highway that the van carrying the all-woman rock band I and a Polish friend had tagged along with in 1991 had traveled down, going from Bydgoszcz to Bialystok. It might have been the same stretch of road.

Eventually, the road again became dual carriageway (I laughed a bit when I noticed it was named for John Paul II, whose visit to Bialystok in 1991 had actually closed this section of road to us in leaving the city), and I dozed off, waking briefly for road detours. This section of road hadn’t become anymore interesting in 20 years.

Around 5:30 p.m., the bus stopped near a “Via Baltica Truck Center,” allowing us to have a restroom-cigarette-munchie break at a Lotos service station. Shortly after, the bus turned northward before approaching Bialystok, continuing on the combined routes 8, 19, and E67. At 6:08, we passed a sign saying Augustow in 87 kilometers, and Suwalki in 118.

This, of course, marked the start of the real Via Baltica. The road was two-lanes all the way. It passed a number of churches, the same type you see across the border in Belarus, as well as a windmill at a town called Korycin. We seemed to be making good time at Suchowalka, which we left around 6:45 p.m.

Then the police stopped the bus at 7 p.m. Apparently, they had wanted the carrier to take on an additional passenger without cost, but the bus refused. They continued to fight it out for nearly 90 minutes until finally the police relented for some unknown reason. At 8:25 p.m., we were back on the road. New time of arrival in Vilnius would be about 1:30 a.m.

The rains had started outside, leaving the roads wet some 20 kilometers south of Augustow. Further west from here, only a few days ago, a tornado had struck, killing one and injuring nearly a dozen others. These didn’t look like storm clouds, just normal rain showers. The temperatures, however, didn’t really descend much – they remained about 19 degrees Celsius throughout the trip.

The bus passed through Augustow around 8:45 p.m. as the sun peered one last time below the clouds on the horizon. It appeared a quaint little city in the fading light, a cross between something you’d find in Alabama and Lviv. In the back of the bus, a group of eastern European rockers were drinking with the English-speaking students. The party had begun.

About 25 minutes later, the bus crossed railroad tracks, an at-grade crossing that slowed down the many trucks heading in the same direction toward Lithuania, and went through a roundabout. The skies were trying to clear, making the twilight briefly brighter than sunset. A few moments later, we entered Suwalki, the last city before the border. Soviet-era housing and a shopping mall characterized the city in passing. A huge regional police facility loomed over the roadway toward the border. The light was definitely failing when we left it and the flashing red air navigation lights on the nearby wind farm towers behind.

The last little Polish towns past by in the night, and shortly after, at 9:39 p.m. (10:39 p.m. Vilnius time), the bus crossed into the Lithuanian Republic. It drove past customs facilities closed when the Baltic States joined the European Union, and then came to a stop in front of a currency exchange office – the driver had to get Lithuanian currency for himself and a few other requesting passengers.

Near Kalvarija, about 10 minutes later, the bus left the main road in order to follow the train line toward Kaunas. The last time I saw this country, the temperatures were around minus-10 Celsius, and the ground was covered with snow and ice. I was sharing the cabin I was seated in with a woman police officer who was being reassigned to Warszawa on some sort of exchange program. Her specialty was in investigating financial crimes. I was trying to get to Rome in time to catch a flight to Buenos Aires, so I could meet a self-imposed deadline to go to work in Argentina by January 15. That was 2010.

Two and a half years later, here I was again. The darkness did little to hide the failure at finding real work in South America.

At 11:10 p.m., the bus pulled over at a service station to let off the first passenger in the country at Marijampole. Shortly after, it rejoined the motorway heading to Kaunas. There would be a couple other stopping points on the way to this traditional capital of Lithuania, which we reached around midnight. This was supposed to be the time in which we were to be in Vilnius, the present-day capital. Quite a number of younger travelers debarked in this college town. An English-speaker attempted to board for Warszawa. I felt her pain.

By 12:15 a.m., the bus reached the edge of Kaunas, 96 kilometers away from where my wife was waiting. We entered the A1 (or E85) motorway and pressed onward, ever an hour late, but nonetheless making up some time. Not enough, though. The bus pulled into an empty station at around 1:10 a.m., as it turned out, for me about five minutes too late – the ride my wife had secured had decided the bus was not going to arrive and had gone home. The reunion with her would have to wait a few hours more.

Amber and the Lithuanians

King Mindaugas of Lithuania, as depicted in the Sarmatiae Europeae descriptio from 1578. Art by Alexander Guagnini (1538-1614) via Wikimedia Commons

While the Goths ruled from their Baltic shore empire, the area east of the Goths was regarded as Sarmatia, at least by Roman historians. Little was recorded of the actual tribes that existed in this area until after the Baltic Goth empire collapsed following King Filimer’s emigration to Oium.

One of the tribes that moved in to fill the vacuum left by Filimer’s followers was the Veneti. They had emerged as a subordinate group to the Goths, settled in their own camps along the coast of the present Bay of Gdansk at the mouth of the Vistula. As the Gothic Empire contracted, the Veneti left to the east and took over the immediate east of its Widivarian remnants. These perhaps allied with the Scandinavian Aesti, who lived further north, and moved south into present Lithuania by the fourth century, when Airmanareiks (better known as Ermanaric) apparently led a raid against the Aesti, who were probably encroaching upon the amber beaches of the Curonian Spit.  When the Roman Empire fell in 476, the Veneti still lived within the present limits of this Baltic country.

The political situation had settled in Lithuania by the sixth century, when the Aesti sent a gift of amber to Theodoric the Great. Cassiodorus and Jordanes both described the people as a peaceful tribe living on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The early Finns and other Baltic people lived in a golden age of trade during the Vendel Era of the 6th to 8th centuries, as a result of their extensive relations across Europe during the Age of Migration. The only known incursion was from the early Swedes under King Invar of the Yngling dynasty, who attacked from Uppsala the northern Aesti settlements in present Estonia in the middle of the 7th century. Drawn into a trap further inland from his fleet, Ingvar fell in battle there, and was buried in a large mound on the coast, a warning intended to ward off further attacks.

At the end of the Vendel Era, the Scandinavian kingdoms, such as that of the Yngling in Uppsala, began to expand. In 753, the settlement of Aldeigja, later Staraya Ladoga, was founded as a trading settlement on the shores of Lake Ladoga. In the west, Scandinavian raiders began attacking the coasts of Britain and Middle Francia. Soon after, Viking raids reached all the coasts of Europe, becoming the scourge of those who lived there.

At first, the Scandinavians faced retaliation: according to the saga of Sigurd Ring, the Curonians were fierce warriors, aggressive enough to attack and retaliate if their homeland was threatened. At some point, though, the Swedes gained dominion over them. According to the Vita Ansgari, their hold was not altogether strong at first. Around 850, the Curonians rebelled and declared themselves independent of their overlords, which prompted the Danes to try to establish their dominion over the seemingly small tribe. The Danes found they had taken on more than they had bargained for when they attacked their main coastal settlement at present Grobina, Latvia, and were crushed by an army of five Curonian villages.

However, in the wake of this victory, King Olof I arrived from Uppsala in 854 and easily crushed the already tested defenses of their coastal fortifications. He then marched his army of about 15,000 inland and laid siege to the Curonian capital at present Apuole. After eight days of unsuccessful assaults, the Swedes appealed to the Christian deity, and on the morning of the ninth, the Curonians sought terms, giving over all their gold and the weapons seized from the crushed Danes a year earlier as tribute.

This marked a time of troubles in the Baltic. A few years later, a Viking named Roric took over most of Jutland in present Denmark, and began a series of raids that included the Curonians and other hapless tribes that made their living from collecting amber along the present Lithuanian coast. At the same time, Eirik Eymundson, King of the Swedes, likewise laid waste to a different coastal tribe a year on the Baltic Sea. Around 862, a Viking, or Varangian, leader named Rurik was invited to rule as Prince of Novgorod. Some say this was the same Roric who took Jutland a half decade earlier, but this is not concretely proven. However, it did mark the rise of a new Slavic power for the people of the amber coasts to contend with, the Rus.

Through the tenth century, the Curonians under war leader Lokeris and others of the amber coast faced constant raids by Swedes and Danes, and then were attacked by the Rus under Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev Rus, in 983, around the time that the Prussians and the first Polish state emerged to the west. With so many threats, eventually the dukes and princes in the area form a new confederation, that of Lithuania, which first received mention in 1009. Every few decades, the Lithuanian resolve would be tested, with Rus warriors under Yaroslav the Wise and Mstislav invading against the Yatvingians, and Vikings from Denmark and Sweden again making forays along the coast.

The event that caused the creation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, though, was the crusade led by Bishop Albert of Buxhoeveden, the first Grand Master of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. They landed at the mouth of the River Vaina in 1201 and founded the city of Riga, then began to convert by the sword the various nearby tribes, many of which were still Pagan. By 1219, the various dukes of Lithuania had formed a cohesive enough confederation that they were able to negotiate treaties with the Rus. This unity accelerated when Hermann von Salza’s Teutonic Knights, recently evicted from Hungary for refusing to submit to the Archbishop of Esztergom, were brought into the Polish crusade against Pagan Prussia, which started in the 1220s. Their arrival in 1234 (coincidentally, around the start of Batu Khan’s Mongol invasion of Europe) certainly must have had a galvanizing effect.

The pivotal year for the creation of Lithuania was in 1236. On Sept. 22 of that year, the Battle of Saule took place near Janiunai, Lithuania. It was there that Duke Vykintas of the Samogitians destroyed an army of the Brothers of the Sword under its Master Volkwin. This so crushed the Livonian brotherhood that it submitted to the Teutonic Order less than a year later. In the wake of the victory, the Lithuanians saw clearly that they if they united, they could defeat invaders, even those sent by the Pope in Rome.

However, the first ruler would not by Vykintas. Instead, another politically well-placed military leader managed to gather allies, and apparently kill off weaker rivals, in an effort to become the first Grand Duke of Lithuania. This leader was Mindaugas, one of the senior dukes of Lithuania proper. He was recorded as the first Grand Duke in 1238.

Meanwhile, in the east, the various states under Kiev Rus were falling one by one. The Grand Duchy of Vladimir-Suzdal fell that same year, and Kiev itself fell in 1240. By 1241, the Mongols had, after the Battle of Liegnitz, launched their main body southward against the Hungarians, while Orda Khan led a body of Mongols to devastate northern Poland and southern Lithuania in preparation for a full invasion of Europe. Fortunately for Mindaugas and the other leaders of Europe, that invasion never happened before Batu Khan, the leader of the Golden Horde, died.

In the wake of the Mongol invasion, the Grand Duke took over Black Russia, the remnant Russian state based at Novgorodok (west of Minsk in present Belarus) by 1248, and the remaining Russian lands were labeled White Russia by 1267. About five years later, in the summer of 1253, Mindaugas was crowned King of Lithuania after submitting to the Church. A decade later, about two years after he repudiated Christianity, he was killed by his nephew. By 1285, his descendants lose the throne to the family of Gediminas, whose grandson, Jogaila, united Poland and Lithuania in a personal union and converted the latter state to Christianity in 1387.

However, during this time, the Teutonic Knights, who were ever on the crusade to militarily take and Christianize Lithuania, had managed to secure the Curonian Spit, the great amber beaches of the Baltic, as part of its Prussian territory, as well as the main gathering cities of Kaup (present Mokhovoye) and Truso (presently in Poland). By 1277, the Scalovian tribe north of the spit was subjugated by the military order, and the field remained outside of Lithuania until the First World War. The amber beaches would occasionally fall under the protection of the Lithuanians, along with the rest of Prussia, for the most part, whoever controlled Konigsberg controlled the majority of the amber supply.

Navigating Vilnius

The Gate of Dawn in Old Town Vilnius. Photo by Mastaart via Wikimedia Commons.

Only a couple other passengers that disembarked the bus at Vilnius had people waiting for them. I tried to ignore them as I dragged my things quietly toward the front of the train station. There apparently were efforts to discourage the prostitution market in this area, but the results were not completely successful. A couple working girls walked past me while I was trying to figure out the bus schedules. The look they gave me seem to say that they knew I had no money, and I could be ignored. That, fortunately, was the reaction that I wanted at this point.

I finally made my way into the station, where other travelers had camped out. A guard came up to me and asked me in Lithuanian something that sounded like: “Where do you think you are going?” I responded in English that I didn’t understand Lithuanian. Realizing I spoke English, he asked if I understood any Russian. I said that I did. He asked if I was going to catch a train, to which I said that I was waiting for my wife to arrive. He asked that I wait off to the side out of sight of the front doors. Apparently he didn’t want other people on the street to come in behind me.

The other travelers included a trio of bicyclist-backpackers, another trio of female student backpackers, and a couple of other student-aged travelers. A group from my bus wandered in and apparently passed the guard’s screening for people allowed to wait in the relative safety of the brightly lit terminal.

Around 2 a.m., the reader board, which had been blank to that point, started showing times of trains taking off after 4 a.m. Every time the clock read two hours before a train arrival or departure, the board again changed. I fell asleep at some point watching it fill up, only to be woken a short while later when the guard came through to wake all of us who had dropped off.

As with Hungary, dawn broke around 3:45 a.m. Morning followed soon after. I dragged my things out of the terminal to look for food and the bus to the district that my wife said that her family’s friends were living in. At the food stand, I was met by a drunken Russian guy who was trying to “sell” me on buying beer or vodka. When ignoring him wouldn’t make him go away, I walked off to the nearest bus stop to read times. He followed. I finally fled back to the terminal and waited awhile before continuing my exploration of the bus stops.

As the drunken Russian guy was continuing his sales pitch to another wary and perhaps weary traveler, I finally found the stop I needed to get to the Šeškinė (pron. Sheshkini) district, near the Akropolis Mall. The first bus wouldn’t be for a couple hours still, but I figured I had better be on it, in case my wife woke up and decided to look for me in the light of the morning. Also, this was the day in which we were to try to get to the Belarusian Embassy and pay for my visa. There were lots of tasks ahead and they all required that we meet early enough to do them all.

However, getting to that successfully would require additional hurdles. The first was getting to the right stop. I had been told an address and a bus to take to get to that address. However, Vilnius bus drivers apparently understand only the names of bus stops. Like an above-ground metro line, if you tell them Šeškinė, they will direct you to go only to Šeškinė stop, no matter if the stop is located across the district of that same name from the stop you want to get to. So after waiting for a later bus that would take me to the incorrect stop, it took the better part of an hour to drag the old black bag on its last journey through apartment courtyards and under gateways, eventually reaching the apartment of the family friend my wife was waiting at.

A person will readily go through a lot to be with the one he or she loves. The closer a person gets, though, the less patient he or she becomes. When I reached the entrance, I cracked up – no doorbell, just an entry code keypad. But this time, the world wasn’t going to succeed in killing me before I saw my wife.

A half-hour after arriving, a woman came out of the entrance, to which I asked in broken Russian if I could enter and try to get hold of someone who lived on the fourth or fifth floor. I was fortunate, the woman let me in. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have an elevator to take me to the apartment, but at that point, it didn’t matter. I got to the apartment, only to find it was the home of the daughter of the family friend where my wife was staying. The last few meters of dragging my bag finally took place around 8:30 in the morning on Thursday, July 19. Two flights of stairs later, and I was hugging the woman I said “I do” to for the first time in two years, six months, and ten days.

Baltic amber today

The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, Russia, near St. Petersburg. Photo by jeanyfan via Wikimedia Commons.

Prussian Konigsberg has been more or less the seat of amber gathering since Prussia was Christianized under the Teutonic Knights. Although the Curonian Spit was split in two after the First World War, the Hohenzollern dynasty of the German Empire maintained control of the main supply of amber in the interwar years. Apparently, under German law, collection of amber pieces from the coast was forbidden for visitors and residents.

After East Prussia fell to the Russians, Konigsberg was renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviet Union, and half of the former German territory was annexed into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Under the Soviets, mining of amber deposits became industrialized. Today, the exclave of the Russian Federation produces about 90 percent of global amber supplies. The amber ore is transported into the Russian Federation and exported to other nearby countries, where it is processed for export.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the greatest monuments to amber was built in 1709, when the leaders of Russia and Prussia gathered together craftsmen to create what would be later dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” The work had started on the Prussian amber coast in 1701, and the amber pieces were transported northward to Tsarskoye Selo, where they were installed in the Catherine Palace, then under construction. When the palace opened in 1717, the room dazzled visitors, and remained a prized treasure throughout the remaining years of the Russian Empire, and the early years of the Soviet Union.

Then in 1941, the Germans invaded. As it became clear that the Nazis would soon besiege Leningrad, the Soviets attempted to remove the walls from the palace in order to protect the treasure. When they found that the amber started to crumble, the effort halted, and curators assigned to protect the treasure ordered the amber walls to be hidden behind wallpaper. The Amber Room, however, was too well-known, and between Oct. 14 and Nov. 13, the walls of the room were shipped in 27 crates to Konigsberg, where they were exhibited in the Bernsteinzimmer of the city’s castle.

By Jan 30, 1945, as Konigsberg was evacuated, the crates might have been put aboard the hospital ship “Wilhelm Gustloff,” which was subsequently sunk after it left Gdynia by a Soviet submarine. The death of the 9,343 men, women, and children marked the sinking as the largest loss of life in any single sinking in maritime history. If the Amber Room were aboard, the loss would have added to the already immense human tragedy that resulted from the attack. However, Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy suspect instead that the amber pieces were lost in the burning of Konigsberg Castle instead.

In 1979, work began under the Soviets to restore the Amber Room. In 2003, the Russian Federation completed its reconstruction, and is available for public viewing today.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Vilnius, “gintaras” shops abound with amber souvenirs. Pieces of amber are apparently less controlled on the Lithuanian shore today, even though the Lithuanian half of the Curonian Spit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The return to Belarus

The 17th century Carmenite church at Gudagai, the landmark that Belarusian border Gudagai train station is named for. Photo by Andrei Hancharonak via Wikimedia Commons.

Although I hadn’t slept the entire night, other than an hour’s catnap in the railroad station, there was no time to rest. I had to get ready to gather funds sent by Western Union by my parents for the visa, and with my wife, go and apply for my one-year multi-entry visa into Belarus. This would allow me to again see my daughter, whom I last held in my arms on Jan. 9, 2010, back when she was 10 months old.

The fund collection took a little time, but we managed to collect about 500 USD in Euros. As it turned out, this would be most, but not all, of what the Belarusian government was charging US passport holders to enter the country on such a visa, under rush processing. Under reciprocity conditions (essentially tit-for-tat), the Belarusians now demand 290 USD for five-day processing, or 580 USD for two-day processing. However, all funds were payable only in Euros – the processing fee converted to 415 Euros under the embassies conversion rate, still less than half the cost of crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Peru to Madrid, but much higher than any visa I’ve ever had to pay for before.

The next hurdle was getting in to the embassy. We arrived around 11 a.m., an hour before the gate would shut for the day. And there was a huge line in front of the gates that morning. Eventually, the consulate window manager came out and said that anyone not processed at noon would have to come back another time.

Anyone in their right mind would have headed home, figuring that there wasn’t anything to do until they opened again at 8 the next morning. However, I hadn’t been in my right mind for awhile, and my wife… well, she was in her right mind, and she knew what to do.

As the manager came back out again to tell everyone to go home, the beautiful woman I married went up to the front of the line and got the increasingly frustrated man’s attention, showing him my U.S. passport, and while telling the mostly Lithuanian crowd that they should be out at 3 in the morning to ensure that they get in to process their applications on Friday, he let the both of us in. As we walked in the relative peace of the driveway up to the consulate section’s door, I was in awe of her ability, her timing, her sense of when to successfully get me through what appeared another day’s obstacle to returning to the arms of my little girl. Of course, all people who love their spouse tend to admire them, but there have been few that I’ve seen to have been in awe of their spouse as I was at that moment.

She handled the visa paperwork as if she were a professional at this process, and soon after we paid the bill for the processing, we were told to come back a bit later in the day, that my visa would be ready then. After a quick pizza lunch somewhere out in the neighborhood, we did just that, and I was ready to enter Belarus, according to the stamp, at midnight that evening, if I so chose.

We spent the rest of the day walking the streets of Vilnius, seeing the icon of the Virgin Mary at the Gate of Dawn (where as Catholics we prayed our thanks for being able to reunite as a family), shopping for gifts, and just feeling appreciative of life while walking in the relatively modern convenience of Lithuania’s capital. Some 30 kilometers away, across the border, my little girl awaited in the more Soviet setting of the little town where her babushka’s home sits, not far from a little stream that drains the nearby lands into the larger Vilia River. It would become home for a time, this important time when my daughter would finally get to know me as something more than a picture on a computer screen. But this evening, my spouse and I were a couple again. I was happy to hear her say that I appeared to her almost as if I had never gone away, as if the intervening two years in South America had never happened.

When we finally boarded the train to Belarus, it was the afternoon of Friday, July 20. The “kupe” (second class) compartment we were assigned was shared by a Belarusian couple on their way back from a shopping trip in Vilnius, and a non-descript single Belarusian apparently heading home. All seemed friendly, but relatively quiet as the passport control person for Lithuania came through and stamped passports.

It always bothers me whenever passport officials chose to stamp completely blank pages in a passport, particularly one that is getting near full of stamps. My supply of empty pages dropped from four to three following the Lithuanian controller’s endorsement that I could leave the country.  I scowled at the mark a few minutes before deciding I wouldn’t let it destroy my mood.

The train stopped at Kena, the last stop before the frontier, to allow customs to inspect the cars before turning the train loose to the Belarusians. They didn’t bother to look through anyone’s baggage. They just took a mirror to the upper baggage hold. Finding nothing, the inspectors moved on. Nothing sounded out of the ordinary in adjacent cabins, and before too long, the train was rocking its way across the frontier.

The sun was still fairly far above the horizon as the run between Vilnius and Minsk pulled into Gudagai Station. This frontier zone stop was where we were to get off. Passport control came through and took the passports of my wife and I first. My wife’s was routinely handled, but of course mine produced a scowl. The controller made a rather complete examination of the document, even taking a magnifying glass to parts of the picture page, before finally deciding to endorse. I was happy to see he stamped on the page that the visa was placed, that I didn’t lose any more blank pages entering the country.

The controller checked the other passports in the cabin before we were let off the train. Taking all our things across the several sets of tracks before the run could depart for Minsk, we finally arrived at customs. They looked through my new big bag, a replacement of the wheeled luggage that had carried my possessions since January 2010 (brought over by my mother from the States the November before), and deciding I wasn’t smuggling anything, my wife and I were let through to a waiting taxi.

Author and daughter at home in Belarus. Photo by Marina Angel

The town and the changes made to it belong to another story, to be told at another time. But this story ends at the moment we pulled up to the house of my wife’s mother. I jumped out of the cab, walked up to the gate, as babushka led my little one up the pathway to where I had squatted down. In what I’d later learn was a normal smile for my little girl, she walked up to me, and in what was clearly the best moment I ever had in my two-and-a-half years since I left on a snowy gray day in the midst of a snowy gray winter, she hugged me.

They say that home is where the heart is. In my case, home could be anywhere, but the thing which defines where my heart is at is where my loved ones live. If they were on Cerro Alegre in Valparaiso, Chile, that would have been home for me. If they were near the airport of Lima, Peru, that would have been home. If they were in sunny Madrid, the greenery-decorated city of Timisoara, Romania, or an old farm in Gadany, Hungary, that would have been home for me. But no, they were here in a small city at the very edge of Belarus, amid surroundings that could be mistaken for the Soviet era. And as my child broke the hug, in that moment before her bashfulness sent her running to mom, I knew one thing.

At long last, I was home.

Special thanks to my wife for her suggestions and help, particularly on the Amber Room, and of course for her patience in putting up with me being away from home for so long. I’ve a lot of catching up to do.

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